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Literary Terminology

When analysing any form of literature, whether prose, plays or poetry, familiarity with the literary devices of the craft will help students to discuss and write with insight and proficiency.  There are over a thousand literary terms in common usage, and many dictionaries and glossaries are available from bookshops.  This section offers straightforward descriptions, in alphabetical order, and often with examples, of the most common devices or terms you will encounter in your studies.  At 24HourAnswers, we recognize the importance of knowing and using accurate terminology in your literature subjects, and we have a team of experienced writers, literature tutors and examiners ready to help with your literature assignment or to assist you with your English or literature coursework.



Abridgement - literally means to shorten, so an abridged version is a shortened and often simplified version of a work.  We most commonly encounter abridged versions of classical works for children.

Absurd, Theatre of the Absurd – a theatrical movement in Europe arising after World War II.  It stems from the philosophy of existentialism, depicting man as an isolated being in a world lacking purpose or meaning.  His existence is characterised by angst  (see below) and absurdity.  A famous example is Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis (1912).  For a more in depth discussion of the subject, you might wish to refer to Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Acrostic – a type of poem in which the first letter of each line when read down the page make up a separate word or lexical pattern, such as the letters of the alphabet.

Adage – an axiom, saying or proverb, usually brief and expressing a general truth.  E.g.: Many a true word spoken in jest.

Addisonian – taken from the style of Joseph Addison, English poet, dramatist and essayist with The Spectator and The Tatler.  His elegant literary style was greatly admired by his peers.  Encyclopaedia Britannica has a comprehensive article relating to his life and works for those interested in discovering more about Joseph Addison.

Aesthetics – (from the Greek, meaning 'perceptible to the senses').  Aesthetics deals with the nature and appreciation of beauty and artistic taste.  The adjective aesthetic is often used to mean tasteful or beautiful.  It can relate to the study of aesthetics or to the movement in art and literature known as aestheticism.

Allegory – in its simplest form, this is a story, poem or image produced in such a way as to have two different but coherent meanings, or to invite two different interpretations.  Fables, parables and metaphors are all examples of allegories.  Some well-known allegorical examples are: The Pilgrim’s Progress (John Bunyan, 1678); Gulliver’s Travels (Jonathan Swift, 1726) and Animal Farm (George Orwell, 1945).

Alliteration – a common poetic device or expression involving the repetition of sequential consonant sounds. Alliteration is invariably a component of popular tongue-twisters: e.g. She sells sea shells by the sea shore.

Allusion – (from the Latin: 'to touch lightly upon' or 'play with').  Allusion makes passing reference in a literary work to something other than itself.  Writers may allude to historical facts or people, to myth or legend or to other literary works.  T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922) is full of allusion to other notable works, the majority of which he explains in his accompanying notes.

Ambiguity – (from the Latin meaning 'doubtful' or 'shifting') refers to the propensity of words or sentences to have double or even multiple meanings.  Puns are prime examples of ambiguity, as these can have quite different and sometimes opposite meanings, usually for comic effect.

Ambivalence - opposing feelings or attitudes that co-exist simultanously.

Anachronism - (from the Greek, meaning 'reference to a wrong time').  When an object or a piece of action is out of sync with the historical period depicted in the work, this is anachronistic.  The reference to ‘Ten thousand dollars’ in Shakespeare’s Macbeth (Act I, Scene2) is an example of anachronism, since dollars were not in use at the time the play was set.

Anagnorisis – (from the Greek, meaning 'recognition'), this refers to the dramatic moment when the truth is discovered or realized by characters in the play.  Examples abound in literature, but a famous early example is found in Oedipus Rex (Sophocles, c440-410 BC) when Oedipus realizes that it is he who has slayed Laius and therefore married his own mother, bringing the plague to Thebes.

Anagram – a word puzzle in which letters are jumbled to make a different word, often with a humorous twist.  E.g. bad credit is an anagram of debit card, and a darn long era is an anagram of Ronald Regan.

Analogy - a literary device referring to an idea, word, story etc., used for the purpose of making a comparison in order to help make the meaning clearer.

Anaphora – (from the Greek meaning 'repetition').  This is a rhetorical device in which repetition of a word or phrase is used at intervals to emphasise strong feelings.  One famous example of anaphora is the Martin Luther King “I have a dream…” speech (1963).  

Anecdote – short narratives or recollections of incidents or events in life that are related for the purpose of entertaining the audience.

Angst – (German for 'anguish'), relates to the state of dread or anxiety resulting from man’s realization that he determines the future by his own actions and decisions.  The resultant burden of this awesome responsibility places him in a constant state of dread.

Antagonist – (Greek for 'struggle against').  The antagonist is the chief opponent of the hero (the protagonist) in a story or play.  One example is Iago in Shakespeare’s Othello (1604).

Anti-hero – an unheroic protagonist in a novel or play.  This type of character usually has flaws such as being incapable of performing acts of bravery.  Two examples from popular drama/literature are Willie Loman in The Death of a Salesman (Arthur Miller, 1949), and Leopold Bloom in James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922).

Antithesis - (Greek for 'opposite placing').  In literature, this is a form of verbal mirroring of opposing or contrasting ideas set out side by side.  Neil Armstrong’s “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” (1969) is an example.

Antonym – a word of opposite meaning – e.g. the antonym of happy is sad.

Aphorism – like an adage, this is an accepted truth or principle, delivered in a brief or pithy manner.  E.g. “Necessity is the mother of invention” (Plato c428-348 BC).

Aside – a common dramatic device in which a character speaks in a manner that prevents some of the other characters from hearing, while others, usually including the audience, hear.  An aside becomes dramatic irony when the character directly addresses the audience to reveal his or her thoughts or feelings.

Assonance – similar to alliteration, assonance is the repetition or stress of vowel sounds (as opposed to the consonant sounds repeated in alliteration). E.g.:

Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze… 
(from Daffodils, William Wordsworth, 1807).


Ballad – (French for 'dancing song'), a poem or song that relates a story in simple, often colloquial language, believed to originate from the oral tradition, whereby the words are passed on down the centuries.  Since each performer tends to add or change minor details, many different versions of a ballad can exist.  Traditionally, ballads contain tragic or violent incidents. 

Baroque – although this most commonly relates to architecture, it can also relate to an ornate style of writing found in the seventeenth century.  In architecture this means highly ornate, quirky or fanciful (coming from the Spanish for imperfect pearl).  In literary terms, Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667) is often cited as an example of baroque poetry, while the French playwright Molière offers examples of baroque prose.

Bathos – this is the decline from the sublime to the ridiculous, or from an elevated, powerful or beautiful position to something silly, dull or ordinary, usually for comic effect.  The word is thought to have been coined by Alexander Pope and the effect is used in his mock-heroic poem The Rape of the Lock (1712).

Bibliography – (Greek for 'writing about books').  This is simply a list of the complete works of an author.

Bildungsroman – (German for ‘formation novel’) is a story describing the protagonist’s process of development from childhood to maturity.  Some well-known examples are Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847); Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn (1884), and James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916).

Biography – an historical account of a person’s life.

Black comedy (or dark comedy) – a form of drama in which unpleasant or potentially tragic situations are mocked or treated disparagingly for humorous effect, e.g:  Joseph Heller’s Catch 22, (1961) and Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle (1963).  The genre is thought to originate from earlier tragi-comedy, for example Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice (1605).

Blank verse – poetry written in iambic pentameter but unrhymed.  It was first introduced by the Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey (1517-1547) who employed it in his translation of Virgil’s Aeneid.  It subsequently became the most common form of English verse and was perfected by Shakespeare.

Blurb – brief summary of a book’s plot or contents and printed on the book’s jacket to advertise the work.

Bowdlerise – to censor or remove literary material considered unsuitable or undesirable.  The word relates to Thomas Bowdler (1754-1825), who famously produced an expurgated version of Shakespeare’s work in which he removed all content he did not consider suitable to be read aloud to a family.

Broadside – a large sheet of paper printed only on one side.  These could be said to be the earliest form of newspaper, starting as tracts featuring popular songs or ballads, which were sold in the streets from the sixteenth century onwards.  See the National Library of Scotland’s The Word on the Street for more information. 

Bucolic – relates to rustic verse, stemming from the Greek meaning ‘to do with herdsmen’.  Bucolic, or pastoral refers to the agrarian life, often depicted as simple and idyllic.

Byronic hero – the archetype depicted by Byron in his earlier narrative poetry.  Typically the Byronic hero is dark, brooding, anti-social and rebellious.  Both Emily and Charlotte Brontë portrayed Byronic heroes in their famous protagonists Mr Rochester and Heathcliff (Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, 1847).    


Cadence – this is often used to mean the rhythm of verse or prose achieved by the stress applied to various words or syllables.  From the Latin for ‘falling’, in literary terms this relates to the pattern achieved by the rising and falling of the voice or rhythm, coinciding with the ending of a small section of verse or prose.  E.g.:

                 Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
                 Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
                 Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
                 And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.

Caesura – (Latin for 'cutting') is a pause inside a line of verse achieved by the natural arrangement of the language.  Emily Dickenson’s ‘I’m Nobody’ uses caesura throughout her short poem.  There are three examples in the first, third and last lines:

                  I'm nobody! Who are you?
                  Are you nobody, too?
                  Then there's a pair of us -- don't tell!
                  They'd banish us -- you know!    

Cant – hypocritical language, usually of a political or religious nature.  The word comes from the Latin for ‘sing’ and originally related to the whining voices of street beggars.  It later became used for ‘insincere language’.

Caricature – literally means to load or exaggerate.  It relates to a description or picture of a person in whom certain characteristics or personality traits are exaggerated for comic effect. 

Catachresis – (Greek meaning ‘use wrongly’) this relates to misuse of words.  In poetry it is used for stylistic effect to create a mixed metaphor.  In this example from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Gonzalo says of Boatswain “His complexion is perfect gallows”, meaning Boatswain has the appearance of a criminal and should be hanged.

Catharsis – (Greek for 'purge or purify') is a term used by Aristotle in his Poetics (c. 335 BC) to describe the effect drama should have on an audience.  The exact interpretation of Aristotle’s words has often been disputed, but it is generally believed to relate to the emotions aroused by the protagonist’s tragic downfall, which are purged by the catharsis of the final outcome.

Cavalier poets – relates to the group of English lyric poets writing during the reign of Charles I (1625-49).   Amongst these are Richard Lovelace (1617-57), John Suckling (1609-41), Thomas Carew (1595-1640), Robert Herrick (1591-1674) and Edmund Waller (1606-87).  Their lyric poetry was much concerned with aspects of love.

Characterization – the way writers create their characters in order to evoke or repel sympathy in the reader.  Certain genres follow specific conventions in characterization.

Chiaroscuro (Italian for 'light and dark').  Although this word chiefly relates to the use of light and shade in paintings or drawings, it is sometimes also applied to the rapidly shifting moods in a literary work.

Chicago Critics – a group of critics from the University of Chicago whose ideas were published in the 1952 collection of essays titled Critics and Criticism: Ancient and Modern. 

Chorus – (Greek: ‘band of dancers’).  In the tragedies of Ancient Greece, the ‘chorus’ relates to a group of characters who pose as bystanders and comment on the action. They represent the views of ordinary people.

Chronicle – (meaning ‘to do with time’).  Chronicles tend to cover large periods of time and relate factual historical events, though often mixed with legend.

Ciceronian – style of prose imitating that of the Roman statesman, philosopher and orator Cicero (106-43 BC).  Samuel Johnson (1709-84) and Edward Gibbon (1737-94) modelled their formal literary styles on Cicero.

Circumlocution – (Latin for 'speaking around') relates to the manner of skirting around a subject rather than addressing it directly.

Classicclassical – originally this word meant high quality writing, ‘for the higher classes’, but subsequently it came to mean relating to Greek and Latin literature.  We now use it to describe high quality writing from the past.

Classicism – using the convention of ancient Greek and Roman art and literature. 

Clerihew – short, comic verse using rhyming couplets, as invented by E. Clerihew Bentley (1875-1956). E.g.

               Edgar Allen Poe
               Was passionately fond of roe.
               He always liked to chew some,
               When writing something gruesome.

Cliché – (French for 'stereotype'), a dull or boring phrase made tedious by constant repetition.  E.g. As cool as a cucumber.

Climax – in drama this relates to the time at which the protagonist’s fortunes reach their highest peak before the turning point that destroys him.

Colloquialism – the language and grammar of everyday speech, as opposed to more formal structure, and often involving slang words.

Colloquy – (Latin for 'conversation') – a meeting of educated people for the discussion of a scholarly topic.

Comedy – Although now used to describe anything amusing, the word’s original definition in drama related to the type of play designed to entertain an audience, and which ended happily for the main characters.

Conceit – originally this simply meant an opinion or thought.  It is widely known as a figurative device, or metaphor, comparing two dissimilar things or ideas in a clever or surprising way.

Confidant – a stock character of drama and novels, this is the character trusted by the protagonist.  The confidant is often used as a device to allow the audience or reader to understand motives and outcomes.

Connotation – the associated or symbolic meanings and overtones of words.  Connotations are suggested or implied, rather than stated overtly.  They are significant aspects of metaphor, for example, lions are symbolic of leadership, courage and strength.

Consonance – (Latin for ‘sounding together’), repeated arrangements of consonant sounds, but with vowel changes in each word.  E.g.: flip-flops, pitter-patter, tick tock.

Context – the part that comes immediately before or after a word or passage of literature, and which help to clarify its meaning.  To take a statement ‘out of context’, therefore, is to confuse or distort its meaning by deliberately removing the information that surrounds it.

Conventions – common features shared by literary works. 

Couplet – a pair of successive, rhymed lines, usually of the same length and rhythmic structure.

Courtly love – developed by the mediaeval troubadours of southern France, courtly love was based on chivalry and nobility.   The lover adored his lady and idealized her, proving his honour by his total devotion.  All his deeds and actions demonstrated his chivalric behaviour for her sake, even if his love could never be requited.  Perhaps the best known example of courtly love is that of Sir Lancelot for Guinevere, wife of King Arthur.


Dactyl – a metrical foot; a word of three syllables with one longer, stressed syllable followed by two weaker, unstressed ones. E.g.: poetrystrawberry.

Deconstruction – devised by French philosopher Jacques Derrida (1930-2004), this is a form of semiotic analysis that examines the relationship between text and meaning.

Demotic – (Greek for ‘of the people’), this language style is based on the speech of ordinary people, making it readily comprehensible to all.

Denotation – opposite of connotation, the denoted word has a precise meaning that is readily understood by all. 

Dénouement (French: ‘unknotting’), the outcome or final unfolding of the plot and the moment the audience or reader expectations are realized.

Dialect – the language style or manner belonging to a particular region or area.

Dialectic – (Greek: ‘art of discourse’), relates to the use of logic to investigate the truth by discussion.  The process of question and answer by which doubts or errors are eliminated to reveal the truth.

Dialogue – (Greek: ‘conversation’), the speech and conversations of characters in any work of literature.

Diatribe – a verbal attack or harangue against someone or something.

Diction – the choice of vocabulary used in a literary work.

Didacticism (Greek, meaning ‘teaching’), literature intended to instruct or persuade.  Didactic poetry acts as a guide to inform the reader on a practical matter.

Digression – moving away from the main subject in speech or literature. 

Dirge – originating from the religious service honouring the dead, this now relates to any song of mourning.

Discourse – long conversation or discussion on a serious subject.

Dissertation – a written discussion of a learned topic.

Dissonance – (Latin: ‘disagreement in sound’), lack of harmony, the arrangement of words in order to create a harsh, jarring effect.

Double entendre (French for ‘hearing twice’), an ambiguity.  Nowadays this usually involves a pun implying a sexual or lewd meaning.

Drama – form of literature intended for performance in a theatre. 

Dramatic irony – a feature of drama.  Dramatic irony allows the audience to possess information unknown to some of the characters.

Dramatic monologue – a narrative poem in which a single person (not the poet) speaks, revealing information about himself while describing something else.  Robert Browning’s My Last Duchess (1845) is an excellent example.

Dramatis personae – from the Latin, this literally means the characters of the play.

Dramatization – a play constructed from an existing narrative.

Dumb-show – A common feature of Elizabethan drama, this was ‘the play within the play’, or mimed version of the plot, which acts as a synopsis.  Shakespeare utilized dumb shows in Hamlet (1603) and A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1596).

Dystopia – (Greek for ‘bad place’), the opposite of Utopia, this means a disagreeable imaginary world.


Eclectic – (Greek meaning ‘chosen’), the word was originally used to describe philosophers who were not attached to any particular school of thinking.  Now the word means taking ideas, styles or tastes from a comprehensive range of sources.

Edda – anonymous Icelandic poetry of the thirteenth century, handed down through oral tradition.

Edwardian period – relates to the period following the death of Queen Victoria in 1901, when Edward VII succeed the throne until 1910.  The period up to World War I (1914) boasts many prolific novelists, including Joseph Conrad, Rudyard Kipling, H.G. Wells and Henry James.  The world of poetry and the theatre also saw much significant creative output.

Eiron – a stock character from ancient Greek comedy.  The eiron is a modest, unassuming character who contrasts with the alazon (the boastful, self-deceiving impostor).

Elegy – a poem lamenting the death of a person, e.g. Gray’s ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’ (1751).

Elision – [verb: elide], the omission or blurring of a sound or syllable or word in speech, e.g. I’m, you’re.  In poetry elision is used to ensure the correct number of syllables in metrical length, e.g. ne’er for never, and o’er for over.

Ellipsis – the omission of superfluous words needed to form a complete sentence.  Ellipsis is often used in poetry to condense meaning into fewer words.  In writing, ellipsis is frequently denoted by three dots (“…”).

Empathy – the capacity to understand the feelings of other people; similar to sympathy, but a stronger, all-round feeling.

Encomium – a work written in praise of a person or a noble event.

Encyclopaedia – (Greek for ‘general education’), a book containing comprehensive information, covering all branches of knowledge and laid out alphabetically.

End-rhyme – the rhyming of syllables at the end of lines of verse.  This tends to be the most common form of verse used.

End-stopped line – a line of verse ending in a correctly-used grammatical pause, usually signalled by punctuation.

English sonnet – an alternative name for Shakespearean sonnet.

Enjambment – unlike an end-stopped line, this related to a line of poetry that is not end-stopped, and therefore runs onto the next line in a natural way.  E.g.

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
That alters when it alteration finds
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no! It is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;

(from Sonnet 116, William Shakespeare)

Epic – a long, narrative poem written in elevated style, describing the exploits of heroes with superhuman qualities, for example Homer’s the Odyssey and Iliad (8th century BC).

Epic simile – a long simile which digresses from the narrative in an epic poem to describe some quality through detailed comparison.  Many examples can be found in Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667).

Epigram – an inscription, originally on a monument or tombstone, but now often used to describe short, witty sayings.

Epigraph – similar to inscription, this is mostly used to describe the brief quotations or fragments placed at the beginning of poems, novels or chapters to provide clues or hints as to the meaning or content to follow.

Epilogue – concluding speech in drama, or final passage in a literary work.  It often sums up or provides extra commentary on what went before.

Epiphany – (Greek for ‘manifestation’), its true meaning is the manifestation of God in the world, but it has come to mean an experience of sudden enlightenment or revelation. 

Episodic – from the word episode, meaning ‘coming in beside’, episodic narratives are those written to describe individual series of events.

Epistle – letter.

Epistolary novel – common in eighteenth century novels, the story is told entirely through the medium of letters, written by the character or characters involved in the novel.

Epithalamion – (from the Greek meaning ‘bridal chamber’) this is a poem celebrating marriage, traditionally sung outside the newly-weds’ bedchamber.

Epithet – (Greek: ‘something added’), an adjectival phrase describing the particular qualities or attributes of a thing, e.g. snow-capped mountains.

Eponymous – (Greek for ‘given as a name’), the person in a book whose name appears in the title.

Epyllion – short narrative poem.

Erziehungsroman – another word for bildungsroman (see under B).

Escapist – name given to the type of story that allows the reader to temporarily escape into a fantasy world.

Ethos – (Greek for ‘character’), the main tone or characteristic of a culture or work of art.  Often synonymous with persona, or tone.

Euphemism – (Greek for ‘speaking fair’), an alternative phrase or word used because it is less frightening, blunt or rude, for example, death is euphemistically referred to as ‘pass away’.

Euphony – pleasant sounding.

Exegesis – interpretation and explanation of a text.

Existentialism – a philosophical tenet that stresses the importance of existence.  It was first described by the Danish philosopher Sören Kierkegaard and later taken up by Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre.  For a more in depth description, visit All About Philosophy's website. 

Explication – detailed examination of a text in order to determine its full meaning through the language used.

Exposition – textual explanation of background or events leading to the start of a narrative.

Expressionism – artistic movement starting in Germany around 1900 as a rebellion against realism.  Painters and writers portrayed reality as distorted by emotions or disturbed mental states.  Van Gogh’s paintings are just one example of expressionist art.  For a more in depth discussion of expressionism in both art and literature, visit the Routledge Encyclopaedia of Modernism.

Expurgate – censorship or removal of offensive words or passages from a text.

Extempore – (Latin for ‘out of time’), means on the spur of the moment.  Stories or poetry composed at short notice and delivered immediately.  Modern freestyle raps are often composed extempore.

Extravaganza – extravagant and elaborate theatrical entertainment.


Fable – a short story where animals act as human beings and convey a clear moral message.  The earliest known examples come from the Greek slave, Aesop (sixth century BC).

Fabulation – Twentieth century novelistic style containing strong elements of fantasy, similar to magical realism.

Fabliau – short satire told in verse and involving bawdy characters.

Fairy tale – stemming from folk literature, stories involving magical creatures – fairies, giants etc.  The most famous of these originate from the Brothers Grimm (published: 1812-1822) and Hans Christian Anderson (published: 1835).

Fantasy – divorced from reality, fantasy involves flights of the imagination conjuring up make-believe creatures.

Farce – humorous drama involving comic characters or caricatures and absurd plots, often slapstick in nature.

Faustian – originally relates to the character of Doctor Faustus (Tragical History of Doctor Faustus), created by Christopher Marlowe (c. 1599), but more famously reworked by German poet, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) whose character, Faust made a pact with the devil because of his disenchantment with life.

Feminine rhyme – name given to rhyming words of two or more syllables with an unstressed final syllable, e.g. willow/billowladle/cradle.

Fiction – stemming from the Latin for ‘fashioned’, this is used of stories and novels containing invented writing; the opposite of fact.

Figurative language, or figures of speech – metaphorical language, or fanciful form of expression or grammatical construction that departs from straightforward expression. 

First-person narrative – stories told from a first person point of view.

Flashback – stemming from film terminology, this relates to a sudden jump to a former period of time.

Folklore – traditions and sayings handed down by word of mouth rather than written down.  These include ballads, folk-songs, proverbs, riddles and superstitions etc. 

Folktales – short stories of unknown origin, which have been transmitted through word of mouth or the oral tradition.  These abound all over the world.

Folly literature – popular in the sixteenth century, this form of literature examined foolishness and folly, usually in an exaggerated or satirical manner.

Foot – unit of measurement containing one stressed and one or more unstressed or weakly stressed syllables.  See also metre.

Foregrounding – literary technique used to highlight certain sections of a text in order to bring this to the reader’s attention.

Formalism – Russian literary movement from around 1917 which focussed on form, style and technique, ignoring such aspects as social, political or philosophical considerations when analysing literary texts or art.  For a more detailed explanation, please refer to Encylopaedia Britannica

Format – size, design and appearance of a book.

Free verse – form of poetry that is printed like verse, but not confined to any regular pattern or metre.  Modernist poets such as T.S. Eliot (1888-1965) and Ezra Pound (1885-1972) used this form extensively.

Fugitives – a band of poets from America’s Southern states who collaborated on the Fugitive magazine between 1922 and 1925 as a reaction against industrialisation and other cultural indicators of modern life.  The poets included John Crowe Ransom (1888-1974), Allen Tate (1889-1979), Robert Penn Warren (1905-1989) and Laura Riding (1901-1991).

Futurism – a European artistic and literary movement advocating the breaking down of traditional boundaries, such as grammatical rules and regulations, and emphasising technology, industrialisation and freedom from the usual confines of logic.  These revolutionaries also championed speed, war and Fascism.


Genre – kind or type.  In literature the three major genres are poetry drama and prose (novels).  These main categories can be sub-divided into many different genres, for example poetry can by sonnets, odes, elegies etc; drama can be comedy, tragedy, history and such, while prose can be biographical or autobiographical, romances, thrillers, science fiction and so on.

Georgian poetry – refers to those poets who were writing during the reign of King George V (1910-36) and include poets such as W. H. Davies (1871-1940), Walter de la Mare (1873-1956) and Rupert Brooke (1887-1915).

Gestalt – a term in philosophy for an organised whole that is considered to be more than the sum of its independent parts.  The word is sometimes used to discuss the general structure of a piece of literature.

Ghost-writer – someone who writes on behalf of someone else.  Celebrities often employ ghost-writers for their autobiographies.  The fact that it has not been written by the celebrity is usually concealed.

Gnomic verse – verse containing short statements based on general truths or maxims. 

Goliardic verse – named after wandering scholars of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, who wrote and performed satirical songs celebrating love and drinking. 

Gothic novel – the word originally referred to a Germanic tribe, but came into popular use as relating to medieval.  These days it refers particularly to the art and architecture of the Middle Ages.  The Gothic novel relates to the Gothic revival started in the eighteenth century and dealt with voilent passions and supernatural fears frequently in medieval settings.  Some famous examples are Walpole’s Castle of Otranto (1764), Ann Radcliff’s Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), and of course Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818).

Grand style – Matthew Arnold used this phrase in his series of essays ‘On Translating Homer’ (1861) with reference to the style used by Homer, Virgil Dante and Milton in their epic poetry.  Their sustained, eloquent style evoked strong emotion in the reader.

Graveyard poets – In the eighteenth century a number of poets produced a series of mournful poetry reflecting on death, inspired by gloomy thoughts and frequently set in graveyards.  Among the most notable were Thomas Parnell (Night Piece on Death, 1721), Edward Young (Night Thoughts, 1742) and Thomas Grey’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard (1750).

Great Chain of Being – relates to American critic Arthur O. Lovejoy’s study of the same title, written in 1936.  It is a detailed exploration of the hierarchical structure of life on earth, from the lowest of the animal species right up to God.

Grotesque – in art criticism this refers to a specific type of decorative feature used in architecture.  Further details and illustrations can be seen at The Cornell Library's website.  The term came to widely refer to all aberration from the considered norm, or good taste, and extended to literature intended to shock or amuse in a satirical way.

Grub Street – now called Milton Street, this was an area of London in the nineteenth century frequented by poor authors who were willing to write anything for money. 



Hack – a writer who lacks real skills or who writes purely for money.  The word originates from ‘hackney’, which was a horse for hire.

Hagiography – religious literature concerned with Christian saints and martyrs.

Haiku – a Japanese verse form with exactly seventeen syllables that form three lines each of 5/7/5 syllables and representing a complete thought or observation.  E.g.

An old silent pond...
frog jumps into the pond,
splash! Silence again.

(Matsuo Bashō, Japanese poet, 1644-1694)

Half-rhyme – a rhyme that is not perfect.

Hamartia – the error in judgement made by a tragic hero and which leads to his downfall.

Hemistich – in verse, a line that is less than the normal length.

Heptameter – a line of verse consisting of seven metrical feet.

Hermeneutics – (from the Greek meaning ‘science of interpretation’), this was originally applied to biblical interpretations, but now more generally means literary theory, or the way we interpret texts.

Hero, heroine – the main characters in a piece of literature.

Heroic couplets – pairs of lines of rhymed verse in iambic pentameter.  This verse form was most famously mastered by  Alexander Pope (1688-1744), and for further reading and examples, you might wish to visit The Poetry Foundation's page.

Heroic poetry – another name for epic poetry.

Hexameter – a line of six feet.  Verse written in iambic hexameter is known as Alexandrine.  

Hieratic – formal, elaborate language.

High comedy – comedy of manners, wit or intellectual detachment, as distinguished from low comedy (see under L).

Historical novel – a genre of novel originally developed by Sir Walter Scott, set in a different historical period and faithfully describing the society and manners of that period.

History play – dramatic piece set in a specific historical period.  Shakespeare famously wrote ten history plays (as distinct from his comedies and tragedies), all dealing with English kings, from Richard II to Henry VIII.

Homily – a spoken or written sermon.

Homonym – (Greek for ‘same name’), a word with two or more quite different meanings. E.g. bark is the sound a dog makes, and also the covering of a tree trunk.

Homophone – (Greek for ‘same sound’), a word that is pronounced exactly the same as another word, but with a different spelling.  See our section on homophones or commonly confused words

Hubris – insolent pride.  When the tragic hero ignores the warnings, rules or laws dictated by the gods, this brings about his downfall (see also Nemesis).

Humanism – during the Renaissance, intellectuals devoted their time to studying classical works and this changed their view of man’s place in the universe and of humanity.  For further details on humanism, you might wish to read Simply Psychology’s article. 

Humanities – originally referred to the study of grammar, rhetoric and poetry, Greek and Latin.  These days the word generally refers to the arts subjects studied at university.

Humor, humors – ancient medical theory listed four major ‘humors’ in the human body: phlegm, blood, choler and black bile.  If any one of these had a greater presence in the body, that person’s character would be phlegmatic, sanguine, choleric or melancholic.  Therefore, an exact balance was desirable to create ‘good humor’.  For further reading, visit Psychology Today's website.

Hymn – a religious song praising God.

Hyperbole – (Greek: ‘throwing too far’), a figure of speech characterised by excessive exaggeration.


Iamb – the commonest metrical foot in verse.  This consists of a weakly stressed syllable followed by a strong one.

Icon – image, or sacred painting.  The word has come to mean an object worthy of serious contemplation.

Iconoclasm – means image-breaking.  Someone who sets out to refute and/or destroy commonly accepted ideas and conventions.

Idée fixe – a fixed idea or obsession. 

Idiom – a phrase or word in colloquial language; it can sometimes be ungrammatical or sound illogical.  For example: ‘break a leg’, ‘tough luck’, ‘give it some elbow grease’.

Image, imagery – a word picture.  In literature this often refers to metaphors or similes created by the author to affect the senses or emotions of the reader.  Thematic imagery – imagery that recurs throughout a work of literature or art.  Shakespeare used thematic imagery in all his plays, for example the recurring theme of ambition in Julius Caesar and Macbethappearance and reality in A Midsummer Night’s DreamThe TempestOthello and many other of his plays,  deception in Othello and Hamlet etc, etc.

Imperfect rhyme – often found in modern poetry, this entails the use of words that do not rhyme exactly.

In medias res - the act of beginning a chapter or scene in the middle of an event, piece of action or dialogue.

Intentional fallacy – the misconception of basing literary criticism on the author’s intention rather than on the actual written work.  The phrase was coined by American critics W. K. Wimsatt and M. C. Beardsley in 1954.  Their essay can be found at the Simmons School of Education website. 

Interior monologue – in literature, this refers to the attempt to convey through words the interior thought process.  (See also stream of consciousness).

Internal rhyme – the use of word rhymes within a line of verse as opposed to at the end of the line.

Invective – insulting or critical language levelled against someone or something.

Inversion – a disruption of normal word order, often found in poetry.

Invocation – (from the Latin for ‘call upon’), the poet’s summoning of a god or muse to help him in completing his poem.

Irony – a rhetorical device or way of speaking or writing which generally involves saying one thing while meaning another.  Sarcasm uses ironical statements with the intention of insulting or hurting.  Cosmic irony refers to works relating to God’s manipulation of events in order to thwart people’s lives.  Dramatic irony occurs when the audience has more information than a character or characters within the play and can therefore anticipate the events that will befall while the characters remain in ignorance.

Italian sonnet – another name for Petrarchan sonnet.

Ivory tower – a refuge from the day to day practicalities of the real world.  It is often used to describe an academic environment separated from the mundane affairs of everyday life.


Jacobean (age) – relates to the reign of King James I (1603-1625), which followed the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.  Jacobean drama includes the works of Webster, Middleton, later Shakespeare and Ben Jonson and is often characterised by a darker, more violent view of life.

Jargon – the particular kind of language relating to a trade or profession.

Jeu d’esprit – light-hearted, witty comment.  The phrase can also be used to describe a short piece of writing in this style.

Jingle – catchy rhyme or song used in advertising.

Journal – daily newspaper or magazine.

Journalistic – written in the style of journalists.

Juvenilia – the youthful works of a writer.


Kenning – Anglo-Saxon figurative or metaphorical poetry employing compound expressions rather than one-word descriptions.  For example: whale-road for sea, or battle-sweat for blood.

Kitchen-sink drama – type of drama common in the 1950s and 60s focusing on domestic life and gritty realism.

Kitsch – (German for ‘throw together’), relates to cheap or vulgar objects of no merit or beauty.

Künstlerroman – a novel focusing on the development of an artist or writer.  For example: James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916).


Laconic – the word comes from the Greek, meaning ‘member of the Spartan race’.  These people were known for their terse speech, thus the word came to relate to a short, pithy style of speaking.

Lakeland or Lake poets – Three poets from the early nineteenth century who all lived in the Lake District in the north of England.  These were William Wordsworth (1770-1850), Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) and Robert Southey (1774-1843). 

Lament – poem expressing sorrow at the death of someone.

Lampoon – satire; a critical and mocking verse, painting or drawing.

Latinate – using words or constructions that have their origins in Latin.

Leavisites – followers of the views expressed by F. R. Leavis (1895-1978), British literary critic and former teacher of English at Cambridge.  For more information, visit the Levis Society website.

Legend – initially relating to the lives of saints, the word now tends to mean story from the past about heroic people.

Lexicon – dictionary.

Libretto – the text of an opera or musical.

Light verse – as its name suggests, poetry concerning non-serious subjects, or verse not meant to be taken too seriously.

Limerick – type of light verse made popular by Edward Lear (A Book of Nonsense, 1846). Example:

There was a Young Lady of Dorking,
Who bought a large bonnet for walking;
But its colour and size,
So bedazzled her eyes,
That she very soon went back to Dorking.    (Edward Lear)

Limited edition – publication produced in very small numbers.

Linguistics – the scientific study of language.

Literal language – precise language (as opposed to figurative or metaphorical language).

Literature – collective term for all written works, including poetry, drama, novels, or short stories. 

Litotes – figure of speech using understatement to make its point, or by stating the negative to highlight the positive and often involving double negatives.    E.g. not bad, meaning good; not unhappy, meaning happy.

Loose sentences – casual prose or speech, in which often does not follow normal grammatical rules.

Low comedy – type of base comedy intended to provoke laughter by the simplest means, for example slapstick.

Lullaby – soothing song sung to send a small child to sleep.

Lyric – song-like or melodious poetry.


Machiavellian - relating to the political philosophy of Niccolo Machiavelli outlined in his book The Prince in the early sixteenth century which advocates unethical methods and ruthless self-interest in order to gain political power.

Madrigal – poem about pastoral life or love and intended to be sung.

Malapropism – word named after Mrs Malaprop in The Rivals (1775) by R.B. Sheridan because of her propensity for misusing words. E.g.

"He is the very pine-apple of politeness!" (instead of pinnacle)
"His physiognomy so grammatical!" (instead of phraseology)

Manifesto – statement in writing of a literary, philosophical or religious nature.

Mannerism – frequent recurrence of a particular feature of a writer’s style.

Manuscript – early version of a book before it is printed and/or published.

Marxist criticism – literary criticism based on the theory that literary works reflect the society from which they originated.  For a more detailed description, visit the Oxford Reference website. 

Masculine rhyme – verse in which the final single, stressed syllables are rhymed. E.g.

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough.
             (from A Shropshire Lad, by A. E. Houseman, 1859-1936)


Masque – type of courtly drama popular in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, comprising of drama, songs, poems, dancing etc, given by masked performers.

Maxim – a short saying concerned with manners and behaviour.

Measure – metre.

Medium – relates to the type of material used by painters, writers etc.

Meiosis – understatement.

Melodrama – (Greek for ‘song-play’), type of drama characterised by excessive emotions, violent actions and unlikely events.

Memoirs – autobiographical writing.

Mephistophelean - relating to the medieval jeering, sneering tempter in the Faust legend who bargained to win souls for the devil.

Metaphor – comparison between two different things or ideas that works by blending them together so that one thing is referred to as the other, thereby carrying over all its qualities.  E.g.

The soldier was a lion in battle. (meaning the soldier had the qualities usually associated with lions – strength, courage etc).

Metaphysical poets – although metaphysics is a branch of philosophy that deals with the nature of reality, the term was used to describe a group of seventeenth century English poets who wrote in the style of John Donne.  Visit Encyclopaedia Britannica for a more in depth description. 

Metonymy – a figure of speech in which the name of a thing is substituted by one of its attributes.  For example Crown instead of a royal personage, or Hollywood in place of the American film industry.

Metre or meter – the rhythmic structure of lines in a verse.  Visit the Poetry Archive for more detail. 

Middle English period – the period between the Norman Conquest (1066) and the late 15th Century in which the English language underwent various changes until it became the standard literary language and formed the basis of the language spoken today.

Mimesis, mimetic – Aristotle used this term in his Poetics (4th century BC) to describe tragedy as an imitation of an action.

Miracle plays – medieval drama featuring the lives of saints and the miraculous events associated with them.

Miscellany – a collection of a variety of different kinds of writing in one book.

Mise en scène – (French for ‘put on stage), the setting (scenery, costume, props etc) of a theatrical production or film.

Mnemonic – memory aid.  E.g. FANBOYS to remember the seven co-ordinating conjunctions, or Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally to remember that the order of operations for math is Parentheses, Exponents, Multiply, Divide, Add, and Subtract.

Mock-heroic – any literary work that imitates the heroic style in order to ridicule or satirise an unheroic subject.

Modernism –the between the First World War (1914-18) and the mid-1960s in which literature took on a more experimental quality.  The Literature Network  has a useful and more detailed article on this subject for those interested. 

Monodrama – a piece of drama featuring one actor playing one character throughout.

Monologue – one person speaking, with or without an audience.  See also Dramatic Monologue.

Mood – the prevailing feeling or atmosphere described in a literary work.

Moral – lesson to be taken from a story or play.

Morality play – popular in the 15th and 16th centuries, a type of allegorical play presenting a lesson about good conduct.  Visit the British Library for further reading on Everyman (c. 1500), one of the most famous examples. 

Morpheme – smallest unit of speech. 

Motif – a recurring aspect in a piece of literature, e.g. a theme or image.

Muse – one of the nine Greek goddesses (Calliope, Clio, Erato, Euterpe, Melopmene, Polyhymnia, Terpsichore, Thalia and Urania) who presided over the arts.  For further information, visit the Greek Mythology website. 

Mystery play – dramatic representation of Bible stories, popular in mediaeval England.

Myth – stories concerning gods or superhuman beings.

Mythopoeia – Mythological structures or organizations invented by poets.


Narrative, narrator – a narrative is a story and a narrator the person telling a story.  See also first person narrative and point of view.  A third-person narrative or narrator is a story told by one of the characters who refers to other characters as ‘he’, ‘she’, or ‘they’.  An omniscient narrator tells the story as if he or she is able to see inside the minds of all the other characters and knows all possible outcomes to the story.

Narrative verse – verse that tells a story.

Naturalism – philosophical idea that the world operates by only natural forces (rather than spiritual or supernatural), and sees man as little more than an animal, governed by natural laws or forces.  For a more in depth discussion of naturalism, visit Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.  

Negative capability – a phrase coined by poet John Keats in 1817, to mean “when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” See the British Library’s article entitled Discovering Literature: Romantics and Victorians for more information.  

Nemesis – (Greek for ‘righteous indignation, retribution’), the punishment of man’s insolence towards the gods.

Neoclassicism – a revival of classical styles in literature, art or music.

Neologism – a newly invented word or phrase.

Nihilism – the rejection of all religious or moral codes or principles, resulting in the belief that life has no meaning.

Noble savage – an earlier human who has not become corrupted by society.

Nom de plume – pseudonym or pen name.

Nonce-word – a word invented for a specific occasion or reason and used only once.

Novel – a fictional work of prose the length of a book.

Novelette – often used derogatively to describe an insignificant or worthless type of novel.

Novella – a piece of fiction longer than a short story but not long enough to be termed a novel.

Nursery rhymes – simple verses for very young children.


Objective criticism – in literary terms this is a type of criticism that examines a work purely for its content as something independent of the writer’s intentions or involvement.

Occasional verse – poems written to celebrate or commiserate on a particular occasion.

Octave – name given to the first eight lines of a sonnet.

Octosyllabic couplet – rhymed couplet with eight syllables per line.

Ode – lyric poem characterised by its grand style and complexity.  For definitions of different types of ode and some examples, visit Literary Devices

Old English period – the period circa 500 – 100 marked in Great Britain by the Anglo Saxon settler.  See the History of English for an excellent article on the subject.

Omniscient narrator or point of view – see under Narrative.

Onomatopoeia – words which sound like the words they describe.  E.g. cuckoo, swish, bang.

Oral literature – works such as ballads and epics were originally spoken works and were handed down by word of mouth, known as the oral tradition in literature.

Oration – formal speech.

Oratorical – eloquent, formal language.

Over-reading – a method of reading in which more is attributed to the content of a passage of writing than can reasonably be accepted.

Oxford Movement – an attempt to revive Catholicism in the Church of England.  Visit Oxford’s Pusey House for a detailed article on the subject.  

Oxymoron – (from the Greek meaning ‘pointedly foolish’), a type of paradox, or figure of speech that uses contradictory descriptions or ideas for poetic effect.  Shakespeare’s hero in Romeo and Juliet was fond of such constructions, for example ‘brawling love’, ‘heavy lightness’ and ‘loving hate’.  


Palimpsest – a material for writing that has been over-used – i.e. written over, rubbed out and re-used.

Palindrome – a word or phrase that reads the same when read both forwards and backwards.  For example

Never odd or even

Pamphlet – short essay or leaflet on a topical subject.

Panegyric – Poem or public speech in praise of someone or something.

Pantomime – originally this related to a form of acting without speech, merely using gestures and facial expressions.  It later signified a form of comic theatre usually performed during the Christmas period.  Its conventions included a girl playing the leading man, a man playing a comic dame, jokes, songs and dance.

Parable – short story representing a moral lesson.

Paradigm – a textbook example of something offered to illustrate its meaning.

Paradox – a statement that contradicts itself, yet contains a truism. 

Paragraph – A section of prose dealing with one specific subject or idea.  Good writing should be broken down into paragraphs to enable the reader to make logical sense of the points presented.

Parallelism – balanced argument achieved by repeating certain words or ideas in a passage of writing or speech.

Paraphrase – a re-telling or re-writing of a passage using different words, usually with the aim of making it more coherent to the listener or reader.

Pararhyme – half-rhyme.

Parody – an imitation of a piece of literature in order to ridicule it.

Passion play – a dramatic, religious performance representing Christ’s crucifixion, and usually presented on Good Friday.

Pastiche – patchwork; any form of art comprised of fragments of other works.

Pastoral – (Latin – ‘relating to shepherds’), a simple and idealised representation of rural life in which it is usual for shepherds and shepherdesses to fall in love and idle away their time in carefree pursuits.

Pathetic fallacy – a type of personification, especially used in poetry that equates things in nature with the poet’s own mood or state of mind.  For example, if the poet is feeling sad, this is reflected in nature, with gloomy weather and such.  If happy, the sun is smiling, the leaves frolicking etc.

Pathos – (Greek for ‘suffering’ or ‘grief’), passages in literature designed to evoke feelings of deep sorrow and pity in the reader.

Pejorative – a negative adjective expressing disapproval.

Pentameter – a line of five metrical feet in verse.  The iambic pentameter, with its five metrical feet of one stressed and one unstressed or long syllable is the commonest metre in English poetry.

Period – relates to time being broken down into identifiable sections, usually named after the reigning king or queen.

Periodic sentence – a sentence in which the main clause, necessary for completion or grammatical correctness, is placed at the end.

Periodical – a literary magazine published at regular intervals.

Peripeteia – (Greek for ‘sudden change’), sometimes called the ‘reversal’, marks the moment in tragedy in which the hero’s fortunes take a sudden turn for the worse.

Periphrasis – a roundabout and often over-verbose manner of speaking.

Peroration – the final summing up in a formal speech.

Persona – the word comes from the Latin meaning ‘mask’ and originally referred to the masks worn by actors in ancient drama.  It has since come to mean the character in a literary work whose point of view is being presented to the reader.

Personification – a metaphorical device which projects human characteristics on inanimate objects.  For example: ‘My car hates these cold mornings.’

Petrarchanism – imitating the style of Italian scholar Francesco Petrarca (1304-1374), famous for his poems on courtly love, which influenced much lyric poetry between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.  For more information, visit  

Philology – the love of learning and language.

Phoneme – the smallest units of sound in a language that help distinguish different words.  The Dyslexia Reading Well website has a useful article on the 44 phonemes in English. 

Phonetics – the study and organisation of speech sounds (a branch of linguistics).

Picaresque – a novel genre dealing with the adventures of a hero who is an appealing or likeable rogue.  Such novels are often satirical in style.

Plagiarism – the wrongful claiming of someone else’s work or ideas as your own.

Platitude – a cliché, a hackneyed phrase devoid of original thought.

Platonism – the collection of ideas relating to the Greek philosopher Plato (c.427-347 BC).  For more information about Plato, visit the Internet Encylopedia of Philosophy (IEP). 

Pleonasm – tautology; use of superfluous words.

Plot – the plan or sequence of events of a novel, play or film.

Poem – a literary composition, usually in verse.

Poet laureate – a prized title bestowed on certain poets by the ruling British monarch, the first being John Dryden in 1668.

Poetaster – a derogatory term for a poet without much talent.

Poetic diction – the vocabulary and linguistic styles of poets.

Poetic drama – plays written in verse-form, Shakespeare’s plays being the most famous.

Poetic licence – the liberty poets allow themselves to depart from usual language conventions for the sake of their art.

Poetic prose – ornate language that often sounds like poetry.

Poetry – a literary composition, often written in verse-form.

Point of view – particular attitude or way of considering events.  The narrative point of view relates to the perspective of the person in charge of the narrative at any particular point in a story.

Polemic – a strongly-worded verbal attack on someone or something.

Polysyllabic – words with many syllables.

Portmanteau word – invented by Lewis Carroll and explained by Humpty Dumpty in Through the Looking Glass (1872), meaning a combination of two words to enhance meaning.   As Humpty Dumpty explains to Alice:  “Well, ‘slithy’ means “lithe and slimy” and ‘mimsy’ is “flimsy and miserable”. You see it’s like a portmanteau—there are two meanings packed up into one word.” 

Pot-Boiler – a book, film or other creative piece produced chiefly to earn money, and catering to popular tastes.  It is usually a derogatory term.

Précis – summary or synopsis.

Preface – introduction to a literary work.

Primitivism – a preference for intellectual pursuits or for nature rather than society.  A belief that civilization has destroyed a valuable mode of life.

Problem play – a play that explores some specific problem in society.

Properties or props – moveable objects that form a stage setting.

Proscenium – in modern theatres, the proscenium arch is the section occupied by the curtain; when the curtain is down, the majority of the stage is concealed, with a small section jutting out towards the audience.

Prose – language that is not verse.

Prosopopeia – personification.

Protagonist – the principal or leading character or actor.

Proverb – a short, popular saying containing a truism.

Pseudonym – false name, or pen name.

Psychological novel – a genre focusing on the inner lives of the characters.

Pun – a play on words for comic or witty effect.

Pyrrhic – a metrical foot consisting of two short, unaccented syllables.


Quarto – size of a book or paper.  A number of Shakespeare’s plays were printed in this size.

Quatrain – a four-line stanza in versification.

Quintain – a rhyming scheme with a stanza of five lines.


Rabelaisian – name given to humorous and overtly bawdy writing, deriving from the French writer François Rabelais (1494-1553).  For more information on his works, visit the website of New World Encylopedia

Realism – sometimes referred to as naturalism, in the literary arts this style relates to truthful depictions or representations of the subject matter, without any elements that might be considered implausible.

Reductive – an interpretation of a piece of literature that reduces its meaning or significance, often in a damaging way.

Referential language – factual and exact language, as opposed to descriptive language that plays on the emotions to affect the reader’s feelings.

Reformation – a schism or religious revolution that took place in the sixteenth century and giving rise to Protestantism.  For further information, why not read Encyclopaedia Britannica’s in depth article? 

Refrain – repetition of words or lines in a poem or song, and often referred to as the chorus.

Regional novel – novel with a particular setting that highlights the customs, mannerisms and dialect of that place.

Renaissance – (French for ‘rebirth’), an historical period in European history following the Middle Ages which saw a rebirth in the arts and sciences as well as heralding a new era in religious and philosophical thinking.

Repartee – a quick and witty verbal response.

Repetition – saying again.

Restoration – the forty year period heralded by the return of the monarchy, when Charles II came to the throne. 

Restoration Comedy – sometimes referred to as comedy of manners, this style of literature was popular in the seventeenth century and focused on sexual intrigue, marital infidelity and such.  For an outline of the most popular restoration comedies, see Interesting Literature’s “10 of the Best Restoration Plays Everyone Should Read”. 

Revenge tragedy – a vengeance drama, which focuses on the protagonist’s quest for revenge against those who have wronged him.  Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a typical example. 

Reversal – the final turning point in the hero’s fortunes in tragic drama.  See also Peripeteia

Review – a short critical account of a book for the purpose of informing others.

Revue – light entertainment comprised of sketches, songs, dances and witticisms, usually satirical in nature.

Rhetoric – the art of speaking or writing effectively and persuasively.

Rhetorical question – a question that the listener is not expected to answer.

Rhyme – mostly used in versification, rhyme consists of using words with matching sounds, usually at the end of the line.

Rhyming couplets - two rhyming lines of the same length and rhythm that complete one statement or idea.

Rhyme-scheme – the pattern created by rhymes in verse, and most often expressed in alphabetical code.

Rhythm – the regular repetition of strong and weak elements of sound.

Ribald – bawdy entertainment, usually focusing on sexual or bodily functions.

Riddle – puzzle.

Roman à clef – (French for ‘novel with a key’), a novel in which some characters are disguised as actual people of significance.

Roman fleuve – a series of complete novels following the lives of the same characters.

Romance – genre of novel concerned with relationships and love.

Romantic period – A period in English literary history dating from 1789 to circa 1830.  You might like to take a look at The National Trust’s article entitled ‘What is Romanticism’ which names some of the writers, poets and artists associated with the Romantic period. 

Romantic comedy – this style of comedy began in Elizabethan times, with Shakespeare’s As You Like It (1603) being a major example. For an essay outlining romantic comedy through the ages, visit the Everyman Theatre website. 

Rondeau – a playful verse form originating from France and usually consisting of thirteen lines.

Rondel – similar to the Rondeau, but with fourteen lines and a looser structure.

Rune – ancient writing.

Run-on-lines – see Enjambment.


Saga – stories relating to the exploits of warriors of Icelandic or Scandinavian origin.

Sarcasm – a bitter an ironical remark, usually intended to hurt.

Satire – type of literature using irony or exaggeration to expose folly or vice and make them appear absurd.  For some examples of satire in literature, visit Literary Devices

Scansion – the scrutiny and analysis of metre in verse.

Scenario – summary of a play or film.

Scene – section or smallest part of an act in a play.

Science fiction – genre of literature relating to the science and technology of the future.

Screenplay – script or textual details, including cinematic directions, of a film.

Semantics – study of words and their meanings.

Semiotics – in philosophy, semiotics refers to the study of signs and symbols.

Senecan tragedy – Roman philosopher, Seneca (first century AD) adapted tragedies from the Greek.  See article titled ‘Who is Seneca?’ for further information about his work. 

Sense – balanced intelligence.

Sensibility – the capacity for deep feelings and responses to aesthetic influences.

Sentimentality – the aptitude for empathy with people or events, usually in excess.

Sestet – the final six lines of a sonnet.

Setting – the place and time of the events in a work of literature or drama.

Showing and telling – showing is narration without authorial intervention, so events and dialogue are presented to the reader in a more direct way than telling, in which the author guides the reader how to think about characters, motivations etc.  Visit Novel Writing Help for a more detailed discussion of the subject. 

Simile – a figure of speech, or type of metaphor that makes a comparison between two things using the linking words ‘like’ or ‘as’.

Slang – informal or colloquial language.

Social realism – artwork depicting social and political realism relating to the working classes.

Sociological novel – genre of novel that makes a sociological or political point about issues in society that need reform.

Solecism – errors in grammar or lexis that reveal the ignorance of the speaker or writer.

Soliloquy – a dramatic convention in which a character speaks his or her thoughts aloud to the audience without any other characters hearing. 

Sonnet – Poem of fourteen lines written in iambic pentameter, which can be divided in several ways into an octave (containing eight lines), and a sestet (six lines) or three quatrains (four lines each) with a final couplet (two lines).  Take a look at the Poetry Foundation website for a more detailed explanation of the arrangements and some examples.   

Spondee – a metrical foot with two long or stressed syllables.

Spoonerism – named after Rev W.A. Spooner (1844-1930), this is the transposition of initial sounds or letters in two or more words.  For example: a half-warmed fish, instead of a half-formed wish.

Sprezzatura – studied carelessness.

Stage directions – instructions or advice in a script about appearances, movement or gestures of the characters or props.

Stanza – a verse, or unit of several lines of poetry.

Stereotype – cliché, or stock character.

Stichomythia – rapid dialogue in alternate lines, to give the idea of an argument or avid discussion.

Stock character – easily recognisable character type in drama or literature.

Stock response – a response made without particular thought or consideration.

Steam of consciousness – in literary terms this is an attempt to convey all the workings of a character’s mind, including all thoughts and feelings.  You might wish to visit The Virginia Woolf Blog for an article on Stream of Consciousness as a Literary Technique

Stress – emphasis given to a particular word or syllable.

Strophe – stanza of a Greek choral song.

Structuralism – the method of interpreting and analysing aspects of human society, including behaviour, cognition and culture.

Structure – organisation of a literary work.

Style – the usual manner in which an author expresses himself.

Stylistics – the analysis of style in writing or speech.

Subplot – secondary action running alongside the main theme of a novel or play.

Subtext – meaning that is not explicit, but hidden beneath a piece of writing or conversation.

Summary – a short account of the main features of a work.

Surrealism – an artistic movement with its origins in France in the 1920s and which promotes releasing the artistic potential of the unconscious mind.  For a more detailed discussion of its place in the art world and some examples, check out The Art Story website. 

Suspense – the condition of excitement, anxiety or uncertainty about what will happen next.

Swan song - referring to the legend that mute swans would sing only once and with haunting pathos just prior to their death.

Syllable – the smallest unit of sound in a word.

Syllogism – a form of reasoning that allows a conclusion or third premise to be drawn from two previous statements or propositions.  For example:

  1. All bicycles have two wheels.
  2. I have a bicycle.
  3. Therefore my bicycle has two wheels.

Symbol – emblem; something which represents something else by association.

Synaesthesia – the merging of senses or sense impressions to create a particular effect or metaphor.

Synecdoche – figure of speech that uses a part to signify the whole.  For examples using ‘wheels’ for automobile, or ‘suits’ for businessmen.

Synonym – a word of identical meaning.

Synopsis – short plan or outline.

Syntax – the arrangement of words in the appropriate order in a sentence to achieve proper meaning.

Synthesis – the fusion of two elements to create a new whole.



Tableau – a staged setting of a group of people in drama.

Tale – brief narrative.

Tall story – an exaggerated and unlikely tale.

Tanka – Japanese lyric form, with thirty one syllables organised in a pattern of 5/7/5/7/7 syllables.

Tautology – repetition of ideas that are not necessary to aid meaning.

Tercet – group of three lines in verse.

Tetralogy – a series of four plays or novels that are related to each other.

Tetrameter – a line of four feet in verse.

Text – the words in a written passage.

Theatre-in-the-round – an arrangement in a theatre which enables the audience to surround the actors.

Theme – subject.

Thesaurus – a book in which words are arranged according to meaning rather than alphabetically.

Thesis – a scholarly study.  This can also mean the basic argument of a work of literature, or a logical argument.

Threnody – lamentation.  See also Elegy.

Thriller – modern novel genre that focuses on action and suspense.

Tone – the mood adopted by the author to add emphasis or guide the reader.

Topographical poetry – poems written about specific places.

Tract – short essay or pamphlet written on a controversial subject.

Tradition – beliefs and ideas that are handed down in society.

Tragedy – a genre of drama or literature presenting the career and downfall of a protagonist. Visit The Smithsonian website for an interesting article on Greek tragedy.  You might also enjoy further reading on Plato and Aristotle on Tragedy

Tragic flaw – the element or imperfection in the hero’s character that leads to his downfall.  See also hamartia.

Tragic irony – similar to dramatic irony, this occurs in tragedies when the audience knows the eventual outcome or fate of the protagonist and watches him struggle towards the painful conclusion.

Tragicomedy – a mixture of tragedy and comedy.

Transcendentalism – in philosophy this relates to styles of thought which reach into the mystical realms of the mind to explore worlds beyond the human senses.

Travesty – outrageous imitation.

Trilogy – a group of three literary works that are connected.

Triplet – a verse of three lines.

Trochaic, Trochee – a metrical food consisting of a strongly stressed syllable followed by a weakly stressed one.

Trope – figurative language in which a word or phrase is used in something other than its literal sense.

Troubadour – poets from twelfth and thirteenth century France who entertained audiences with songs about courtly love.

Typescript – a typewritten manuscript.

Typography – the arrangement of words on a page.


Understatement – a form of irony in which the magnitude of something is played down and not given its full emphasis.

Unities – the principles for action and events in tragedies as prescribed by Aristotle in his Poetics (fourth century BC).  See Enclyclopaedia Britannica for more detail, or go to Project Gutenberg to download a free PDF of this work. 

Universality – in literature this relates to the quality and appeal to all people.

Urbanity – polished manners and civility.  An urbane person is polite, witty and knowledgeable without being overbearing or conceited.

Utopia – a good place.  Its opposite is dystopia.


Valediction – farewell speech.

Variorum edition – edition of a work that includes comments and observations from different reader sources.

Verisimilitude – giving the appearance of being real or truthful.

Vernacular – language or dialect spoken in everyday life.

Vers de société – sophisticated but light-hearted poetry, sometimes satirical in nature.

Verse – poetic arrangement of words as different from prose; often also used as another word for stanza.

Versification – verse composition; study of the art of writing poetry.

Verso – left-hand page of an open book.

Victorian era – the period in which Queen Victoria reigned (1837-1901).

Viewpoint – point of view.

Vignette – the decorative design in between chapters of a book, usually depicting intertwined leaves or scrolls.

Villain – the evil character in a story.

Villanelle – elaborate sixteenth century French verse form of nineteen lines.  For an excellent detailed description and examples, visit the website of the Academy of American Poets.

Volta – the turning point or change in argument and mood between the octave and sestet in a sonnet.


Weltanschauung – a particular view of the world, or philosophical world view of a group.

Weltschmerz – melancholy; the feeling of being discontented with life and yearning for other things.

Willing suspension of disbelief - An expression used by Coleridge to explain how an audience complies with theatrical convensions by not applying normal rules of realism when watching drama.

Wit – intelligence; clever expression of ideas.

Wrenched accent – this effect occurs in poetry when the natural stress of a word is altered by the metrical rhythm of the line.


Yellow Book – an illustrated magazine appearing between 1894 and 1897 containing controversial works.  Visit the British Library website for illustrations and further details. 


Zeitgeist – the spirit or mood of a period as shown by the intellectual atmosphere of the time.

Zeugma – a literary device or figure of speech which harnesses words or phrases of different meanings used for comic effect.  Check out the Literary Devices website for a more in depth explanation and examples. 

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